Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on May 17, 2015.
In a little more than a month, the House of Bishops will gather in Salt Lake City to elect the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The four nominees for this position are Bishops Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina, Ian Douglas of Connecticut, Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida, and Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who received his Masters of Divinity from CDSP, the Episcopal seminary across the bay, where I currently teach. Once elected, this bishop would become one of the 38 primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is chief or primus inter pares (which is Latin for the “first among equals”). And when I say “primates” I am not referring to the category that includes monkeys and apes but to the highest-ranking clergy of a particular province, although sometimes there are resemblances.
Choosing our church leaders has been a challenge ever since Christ ascended. We struggle to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit among us. Today, the Episcopal Church seeks to follow the guidance of the Spirit by engaging in a bicameral process of election shared between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, which includes clergy and laity.
In today’s reading from Acts, we catch a glimpse of how the early church elected her leaders. The tragic downfall of Judas Iscariot left an empty seat at the table of the twelve apostles. In order to fill this job opening, one had to meet certain criteria. The nominee had to be someone who had accompanied the disciples from the time that Jesus was baptized by John to the time that Christ ascended, an event that the church celebrated just a few days ago (on Thursday, Ascension Day). Two nominees, who met the criteria, were chosen: Joseph (who apparently had several nicknames) and Matthias. In order to chose between these two, the early church engaged in the ancient practice of casting lots. We don’t know exactly what this looked like, but it likely involved some sticks or some marked rocks that were cast out and then interpreted, like an early form of rolling dice or flipping a coin or even “ro-sham-bo.” Now this practice sounds rather strange or superstitious to our modern sensibility and many of us would likely not approve of using such a method today in electing our new Presiding Bishop. However, there is profound wisdom in how the early church made decisions and practiced discernment, which can inform not only the decisions we make as a church today but also the choices that we make throughout our daily lives.
Before casting lots, the early church did the hard work of discerning together their necessary criteria for the position. In deciding on a new leader or a new job or a new partner, we are first invited to discern our necessary criteria, our standards and principles. These can be informed by our understanding of Scripture, our tradition as well as our own experiences. After this work, sometimes the choice can become obvious. However, as reality often shows, there is usually more than one option that meets our criteria. In Acts, they had two options: Joseph and Matthias. In the Episcopal Church, we have (at least) four options for Presiding Bishop. And in some cases, we might have twenty or fifty or a hundred options, which are all very good. So after doing the hard work of articulating their criteria and finding those who met the criteria, the early church then did something else before casting lots. They decided to drench their discernment process in prayer.
They prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.” This is a wonderful, simple prayer that we can pray today as the Episcopal Church elects her new leader: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these four nominees you have chosen to take the place in the ministry of Presiding Bishop.”
This is what the readings are about this morning: drenching our lives with prayer so that we can make decisions that please God. In the Gospel, Jesus prays for us, asking that we be sanctified in the truth, which means being immersed in his Word, being regularly transformed through the sacraments, and being nourished by the love of God just as a trees roots are nourished by water. The Psalm today, which is Psalm 1 (the thesis statement for the whole book of Psalms) speaks of God’s people as “trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper” (Ps 1:3). When we are immersed in the Word of God, in prayer and in the sacraments, we can trust that God will be part of the decisions that we make, that God will make good use of our choices and God may even speak to us in ways we do not expect, in ways that seem subject to chance and luck. Like the tree by water, we do not pray only when we need to make a decision; instead, a steady stream of prayer already nourishes our lives so that when we do make decisions, our choices are naturally rooted in the desire to please God. That is partly why we are gathered here today to drench our lives in prayer, in the Scriptures and in the sacraments.
It was only after praying that the early church decided to cast lots. After setting their criteria and drenching their discernment in prayer, the decision between Joseph and Matthias became almost irrelevant. They would both be perfect for the job. I think that the early church would have been in great shape in choosing Joseph rather than Matthias. And I think that the Episcopal Church will be in great shape in choosing any of the four nominees for Presiding Bishop. God gives us the power to make the decisions for ourselves and will be with us in whatever choice we make.
As a young Evangelical, I earnestly desired to follow God’s will in every decision I made, even down to the minute detail. I would even ask God what clothing I should wear or what street I should walk down because maybe there was someone for me to meet who needed to hear the Gospel. Although my heart was in a good place, this kind of discernment drove me crazy. I basically wanted God to micro-manage my life and, as a result, I began second-guessing every decision I made, wondering if I was truly doing God’s will or if I was failing God. Thankfully, over time, I began to hear God say to me in a still, small voice, “Don’t worry about these things.” Jesus actually says this in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t worry. Don’t worry about what you wear, about what you eat, but seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will take care of themselves” (Matt 6:25, 33). In other words, continue to seek God in prayer, in Scripture, in the sacraments and in the community, and trust that God will work through you in all of your decisions.
Several years ago, I was in a relationship, which had hit a major bump in the road, so to speak, and I had to discern whether or not I could remain in the relationship. I took a day to seek the wisdom and advice of my closest friends and to pray. I desperately wanted God to just tell me what he wanted me to do, just a ‘yes’ or ‘no;’ and sometimes God does give us clear answers like that. But most of the time, God doesn’t and this was one of those times. After lots of prayer and meditation, God did not give me an answer in the form a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Instead, the response I heard from God was, “Daniel, you decide. Whatever decision you make, know that I love you and I am with you.” God trusted me and empowered me to make my own decision. God let me roll the dice. I made the decision to stay in the relationship and although the relationship eventually ended, I know that God was with me in that decision and used that decision to form me and to prepare me for my relationship with my fiancée today.
The readings teach us that once we have done the hard work of naming our criteria, we are invited to drench our discernment in prayer. We are invited to be like the tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season. When we drench our discernment in prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, we become rooted in knowing that God will be with us and use us in the midst of all our decisions. Sometimes God will make his choice for us abundantly clear but often times God will not. God will instead invite us to make the decisions for ourselves and call us into the harder work of trusting that he will use us.
Trappist monk and spiritual author Thomas Merton struggled with discerning God’s will for his life and after years of frustration and apparent failure, he realized that God was not going to do the hard work of discernment for him. However, he knew that drenching his discernment and his life with prayer was necessary. He prayed, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
By drenching our discernment in prayer, we are not giving ourselves the power to arrogantly assume that all of our choices are God’s choices, but we are giving God the power to work his will through our choices. So whether we are making major life decisions about a new job, a new career, a new relationship or other choices that demand our attention, the readings invite us to remain watered and nourished by prayer and Scripture so that our decisions will be used by God to accomplish in us his good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.
 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (Shambala: Boston, 1993), 89.